It is one of Westminster’s many traditions that, when an MP is elected to the role of Speaker of the House of Commons, they must show reluctance to accept the title and even be ceremonially dragged to the chair. However as Dr Robin Eagles from our Lords 1715-1790 project explores, Sir John Cust, Speaker 1761-1770, may not have been faking his lack of enthusiasm for the job…
On 18 March 1761 Arthur Onslow retired from his long service as Speaker. He had come in when Sir Robert Walpole was just establishing himself as Prime Minister and presided over the chamber while four more premiers came and went.
Unsurprisingly, Onslow’s departure left a considerable void. At first, it was assumed that he would be succeeded in the chair by George Grenville, but Grenville’s appointment to office necessitated a change of tack. By October, there seemed to be a number of MPs in the frame. Thomas Prowse, Richard Hussey, Edward Bacon and Sir John Rushout were all considered and on 14 October Prowse was offered the post, only to turn it down because of his inability to remain seated for any great length of time.
With no one else apparently willing to take on the speakership, attention turned towards the rather diffident Sir John Cust. He was well established in the Commons, having been elected for Grantham back in 1743 on the interest of his uncle, Sir John Brownlow, Viscount Tyrconnel, and from 1747 to 1756 had held positions in the households of the Prince and Princess of Wales. He was not a great orator but was likeable and on good terms with both sides of the chamber.
Characteristically, it was not Cust who pushed himself into the spotlight, but his brothers, Francis and Peregrine. Noting that the question of the speakership remained open, Francis had written to Sir John asking him directly ‘Why not you?’ Peregrine then took the bull by the horns and in mid-October held meetings with another prominent MP, Richard Glover to canvas support. On the 13th Glover agreed to the scheme and Peregrine assured his brother that the next day Glover would be ‘amongst the great people when he shall bring you upon the carpet’. Peregrine’s only concern was Cust’s decision to resign from the Princess of Wales’s household back in 1756. This had offended Princess Augusta and Peregrine feared ‘Ld B[ute] & the Pr[ince]ss wont forget… I think that will be ye only Barr for the Speaker is not fixd, & they are at a loss to find a proper person’. [Cust Family Records, 207]
Negotiations persisted for the next few days but on 19 October, Peregrine was able to write to his brother confidently that:
Tho it is not quite fixt yet I beleive there is not ye least doubt but I may Hail you Speaker of the House of Commons.Cust Family Records, 208
The same evening, Glover advised Cust to hurry up to London – he had been happily in the country all the time this was going on – and by the 23rd his selection was an open secret. Cust’s sister wrote to congratulate him: ‘We all agree you will fill the chair with great dignity’.
There only remained the formality of him being proposed at a meeting on the eve of the session (2 November) and on 3 November he was elected Speaker, proposed by Grenville and William Wildman Barrington, Viscount Barrington. Cust showed the requisite reluctance to accept the burden being offered him. He thanked his two proposers (‘the very honourable gentleman over the way and the noble lord near me’) but begged his colleagues three times to choose someone more worthy. One other detail had troubled him: what wig to wear. As it was discussed behind the scenes in the family:
If he wears a Bag, it will look ridiculous to have him put into the chair in it wch must happen – if he wears a Tye wch wou’d be ye proper Wigg as he has not been us’d to it it will look presumptuous.Cust Family Records, 58
Having been safely elected (whatever wig he was sporting) Cust also had to think about the question of a suitable residence. Prior to his election he had lived with his family in London in Great Marlborough Street, but this was clearly not thought to be sufficiently grand. After exploring other options, Cust selected a house in Downing Street instead. A few years later his mother also handed him the keys of the family seat, Belton House in Lincolnshire, so he could have a country residence fitting his station as well.
Cust retained the Speakership for over eight years, but he was unlucky that some of the greatest constitutional dramas of the period occurred during his tenure of the Chair. On 23 April 1763 John Wilkes published Number 45 of the North Briton precipitating a struggle between him, the ministry and ultimately Parliament. It resulted in marathon sessions in the chamber, such as those of 13 and 14 February 1764. Horace Walpole complained of the fatigue of being in the Commons for 11 hours on the first and 17 hours the next, though he did acknowledge that Cust and his clerks had by far the worst of it. Cust’s natural diffidence did him no favours during the heated debates and Walpole noted that Sir Fletcher Norton, who was to succeed Cust as Speaker, employed language in the debate which ‘had old Onslow been in the chair, I believe he would have knocked him down with the mace’.
After the Wilkes affair, Parliament then went on to the bad-tempered debates over the Stamp Act and in 1768 was again faced with Wilkes on his return from exile. It was all too much for Cust. In 1766 he had made a first effort to retire from the speakership seeking a peerage instead. He tried again the next year but made the error of approaching Bute for the award. Bute had to advise him that he no longer had any influence over such things.
Cust may have struggled to control an unruly House, but he continued to express the external dignity of the speakership and in 1767 sat (or rather stood) for his portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds in the full trappings of office. Once again, his family had their say in the matter, worrying about what stockings he should wear. His full-bottomed wig also had special treatment, being given a sitting of its own in Reynolds’ studio.
In January 1770 Cust suffered a stroke and was finally granted his wish to resign. He died just a few days later. No one doubted that the strain of office had damaged his already fragile health, hastening his death. If otherwise rather overlooked, however, Cust did have one abiding legacy. Sometime after his demise, the Commons finally relaxed the rules insisting that the Speaker remain in his chair throughout proceedings ‘even for the most necessary purposes’.
Records of the Cust Family, series III: Sir John Cust, third Baronet, ed. Lionel Cust (1927)
Adrian Tinniswood, Belton House (National Trust, 1992)
Find more blogs from our series on Speakers of the House here.